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Rice leaves Israelis at ease and Palestinians frustrated

Times Staff Writer

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrapped up her Middle East shuttle diplomacy tour Thursday, leaving Israeli officials seemingly reassured and Palestinians searching for a silver lining.

Rice, who flew from Jerusalem to London to meet with Jordanian King Abdullah II, essentially shot down the primary Palestinian demands after several days of back-and-forth meetings with Israeli and Palestinian Authority leaders in advance of a proposed peace conference this fall.

“Condoleezza Rice made it clear that she in fact agrees with most of Jerusalem’s demands,” said an editorial Thursday in the Israeli daily Maariv.

Rice’s visit was so noncontroversial from the Israeli perspective that much of the Israeli media gave it only token coverage.

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They focused instead on the perceived Iranian nuclear threat and the implications of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s trip to Russia to visit with President Vladimir V. Putin.

Negotiating teams on both sides are drafting a pre-conference statement of mutual goals. But Rice made it clear during her visit that the Palestinian desire for a document that called for addressing specific issues on a set timeline probably would go unfulfilled.

“We’re at the beginning of a process,” Rice told reporters on her final night in Jerusalem. “Everyone knows that we’re not going to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in November or December.”

In contrast to stated Palestinian wishes, Rice said it was not necessary to set a timeline for resolution of issues such as the future of Jerusalem and the desire of many Palestinian refugees to return to homes they once occupied in what is now Israel. There would be time to delve into details once the negotiations began in earnest, she indicated.

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“The Israelis are untouched. The Palestinians may have been compromised” by Rice’s statements, said Gidi Grinstein, who was part of the Israeli negotiating team during the 2000 Camp David summit.

“The Palestinian leadership conveyed to its public that the [pre-conference] agreement would be specific, detailed and comprehensive,” Grinstein said.

Rice is scheduled to return to the region in early November, and the Bush administration is dispatching national security advisor Stephen Hadley to Jerusalem next week.

Palestinian frustration was clearly on display as Rice wrapped up her visit. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, after his final meeting with the secretary of State, blamed Israeli obstructionism for stalling the negotiating process.

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Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in a news conference with Rice, said the Israelis were “not going to participate in this blame game” with the Palestinians.

During Rice’s visit, Palestinian officials took every opportunity to publicly list the issues they wanted addressed before the conference: Palestinian prisoners, the borders of a future Palestinian state, the West Bank barrier being constructed by the Israelis, as well as refugees and Jerusalem.

For their part, Rice and her deputies rarely, if ever, directly addressed those issues or said the word “refugees” in public.

They preferred to speak generally of “core issues,” which they acknowledged would have to be addressed in the process.

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Hani Masri, a Palestinian analyst and newspaper columnist, pronounced Rice’s visit “a failure” that he said demonstrated the Bush administration’s unwillingness to press Israel into making serious concessions.

“The pressure was put instead on the Palestinians,” Masri said.

“They are now asked to lower their expectations and accept a generally worded document without timelines,” he said.

The result, Masri said, is a difficult political situation for Abbas.

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The president’s aides have already begun hinting that he might choose to skip the peace conference, expected to be held in Maryland, if he sees no chance for significant progress.

“I believe [Abbas] will go to the conference anyway but he will not be happy or comfortable,” Masri said. “He says there is no alternative to negotiations. He has limited himself to this option.”

Mordechai Kedar, an analyst with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said Rice couldn’t press the Israelis too far for fear of undermining Olmert’s government, politically crippled by low public support.

“She knows her limits. Olmert is very weak these days,” he said.

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Olmert and his deputies have begun to float proposals for potentially transferring some Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem into Palestinian hands.

But right-wing parties in his coalition government have threatened to withdraw if he gives away too much.

Although the time and place of the planned peace conference have been widely reported as late November in Annapolis, Md., invitations have not been issued and Rice repeatedly insisted that the date had not been set. The only official time frame, she said, was “in the fall,” which ends Dec. 21.

As she wrapped up her visit, Rice continued to fend off speculation that the conference would be postponed -- something some Arab allies have recommended.

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“It’s a little hard to postpone or cancel something you haven’t set a date for,” Rice said.

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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